Saturday, March 17, 2007

Equality, Change & A 17th Century Poet

Seek not to follow in the footsteps of men of old; seek what they sought.
--Matsuo Bashō, 17th century Japanese poet

(I read this quote and it got me started on a whole train of thought about career women. When I looked up Matsuo Bashō, whom I'd never heard of, I got started on a whole second train of thought, this time about writing. Here's train 1; train 2 is in the works.)

Equality is a sucker bet when what you’re striving to be equal with is flawed. What we want is not so much the specifics of what men have, but the idealized notion of their freedom of opportunity and choice. Of course, institutions set up in accordance with discriminatory or limiting white male rules need to change, but the way to assure that they do change is not to fit women into men-shaped slots. The change we’re looking for is gender-neutral opportunity – not women in any particular role. With meritocracy and gender-blind definitions of success and merit, we would end up with the right people in the right positions, working in a highest and best use way.

So why doesn’t this happen? Vested interests? Preservation of the status quo by the people (male and female) who think the status quo works for them? Subtle, unconscious, inadvertent gender bias – like 16-hour days, indifference to the vicissitudes of child care, and other institutional realities that weren’t necessarily designed for the purpose of keeping women out, but are the perfect solutions for doing just that? And how does it change? Tempered radicalism – and the resulting glacial improvements? The change-from-within approach – get in, buy into and then beat them at their own game, thereby exemplifying and prompting change, which is probably a less incremental approach than tempered radicalism, but requires buying into a lot, possibly suffering a lot, and, inevitably, supporting a lot that is bad? Sexist organizations do gain something that is progressive from women working to change things from within, but they also become more profitable, more able to survive and sometimes only very marginally less sexist. I know of too many instances where an organization closed smoothly over the pebble of a strong, effective woman’s departure as if she'd never been there at all. So where’s the change exactly? Is it really change if the effect was transient and temporal? Is it really change if there are three steps back for every three steps forward after the prime mover moves on?

Is the change-from-within notion another sucker bet if change is what you’re really wedded to as a top priority? Seems to me you sprinkle seeds (which is good) and make incremental changes in organizations and other people via this approach, but it’s hard to separate (1) being a change agent from within the system from (2) supporting the system. Is this maybe a situation where individual movements, however tiny, will add up over time to institutional movement, real progress? Is the pace of meaningful change necessarily glacial – like evolution? Maybe you have to have a really long view to assess change. This was what Martin Luther King, Jr. so inspiringly believed. Because change is in the end bigger and more important than any individual, you just have to be sure you do everything you can to prompt it and move it forward – irrespective of the outcomes that you can assess and measure with your own little perspective in your own little life. Maybe our goal as change agents is really more along the lines of being able to look back at the end and think, "I certainly wish I’d prompted more progress, but I’m confident that I did everything I could and made my optimum contribution to
achieving the ultimate goals."

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